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John Margolies, a photographer best known for his images of mid-century roadside architecture, found himself on the Seaside Heights boardwalk in 1978. He walked around, capturing the various booths, rides, games, and with them, the feel of summer. The images he made that day are part of his Roadside America project, an archive of over 30 years of photographs. The stunning color in the photographs is partly due to Margolies’ use of slide film. Slide film lends a finer grain, richer colors, and more contrast than standard negative film.
"Arcade" is an excellent example of this visual impact, positively glowing with golden light. The first arcades popped up in 1920s-era amusement parks with simple midway games such as shooting galleries, ball-toss games, and early forms of coin-operated machines (think fortune-tellers and mechanical music players). Early arcade games were made almost entirely of wood, lacking the myriad lights and electric scoring we’re used to seeing today. By the 1930s, coin-operated pinball had emerged, the 1960s saw more electro-mechanical games, and the widespread switch over to electronic games began in the 1970s. This particular game of electronic blackjack was made by Seidel Amusement Machine Company, known for such games as Going’ Rollin’, Hitter’s Rally, Horsin’ Around, and Star Catcher.
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In his travels, Margolies took more than 11,000 photographs of vernacular buildings across America’s criss-crossing network of highways, main streets, and back roads. Though many of his images involved the architecture that defined car travel—motels, diners, gas stations, and the like—he also photographed the purely American quirk that lined the roads: buildings shaped like dinosaurs, a giant pair of dice on the mini-golf course, a gator-mouth entrance to a Florida theme park.
This eccentric style came about as suburban living boomed post-World War II, necessitating the creation of more paved roads, and more ways to bring travelers into roadside businesses. New building materials and techniques had emerged, allowing for playfully eccentric free-form structures to pop up. Signs, artifacts, and buildings ranged from whimsical to psychedelic, their main purpose an elaborate enticement. As the style spread, critics derided it as “tacky”, “florid”, and “ugly”. Margolies strongly disagreed: in his mind, these ephemeral pieces better expressed the story of 20th century America than canonical works that didn’t reflect the everyday experience of the people who used them.
It was this mindset that inspired Margolies to drive over 100,000 miles capturing a unique slice of American architecture and history, even as it faded. Much of what he photographed is now gone. A few times, he found out that he’d photographed a building mere days before it was demolished.
His treasure trove of images has been turned into quite a few books, most notably Roadside America, featuring a curated set of around 400 photographs. It was published in 2010, six years before Margolies passed away of pneumonia at 76.
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